PROGRESS promised and progress delivered in the Soviet Union in behalf of religious practice is a key measure of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika process of change in Soviet society. Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox has just returned from several weeks of observation and conversation in Moscow. He offered his measure of worship in the USSR in the following discussion with Rob Nelson, senior correspondent for World Monitor television.
Professor Cox, is anything really changing in religious life in the Soviet Union?
I think the answer to that has to be yes and no. There's an enormously increased level of interest in religion, participation in religious services, attendance at churches, and so on. But the real underlying question is whether the churches are going to be given a kind of legal status. The right to own property, the right to publish their own newspapers, and the right to be an actor in public life has still not achieved legal status.
What's holding it back?
I think what may be holding it back is a kind of apprehensiveness on the part of the government that this would be indeed a very large step after many, many years of official atheism and kind of a quasi-atheistic religion. I think there's a certain amount of reluctance to take it even under the conditions of glasnost.
So if the church got some independence, it might not know exactly how far to go or what to do with it?
I think that would be the next big question. The church - or the churches I should say, because there is more than one church in the Soviet Union today - would take a while to learn how to do this. They've never had any practice, they haven't lived in a society in which the kind of freedom of religious expression outside of the church building itself was possible. It will take awhile for them to learn how to communicate, let's say on television or using newspapers. Or schools or colleges like we're used to in this country.
How does a society that has lived for so long under official atheism deal with any sense of spirituality or the possibilities for it?
One can see and sense a kind of upswelling both of curiosity and a kind of questing spirit among those who've been denied this. It's almost like the forbidden fruit. There must be something to it, a lot of people think, because it's been sat on and excluded for so long. It's astonishing when you think of it that for all these years Bibles in the Russian language have not been available, and there are many people who really, literally have never seen a Bible. Now they are beginning to publish them, although they're still in very short supply. So there's a lack of even basic information or knowledge, and sometimes I'm astonished by the innocence or lack of information of the questions that even well-informed people, that is well-informed in other areas, put to me.
How about archival things from the orthodox church? Have they been confiscated? Can they get back at them now?
Right after the Russian Revolution, the communists confiscated all the records of the orthodox church, all the archives, and simply stored them in a basement in bundles. It's only in the last year or two now that they opened that to scholars, Russian scholars or scholars from the West. Nobody had access to them, and apparently the archives are in very, very disordered condition. Now scholars are beginning to look into them, but you can imagine how hard it has been for Russian Orthodox scholars to understand the history of their church, when they haven't had access even to the basic archives that one needs to do that kind of work.
If you'd been an atheist for a lot of years, either in fact or simply to get along and to match the general setting that you're living in, what happens now when the door gets opened and when somebody says ``OK, your conscience is free?''
I think you see a lot of the kind of marginal religious phenomenon that people get rather fascinated with, and also a kind of nostalgia for an old Russian spirituality, which had a kind of a xenophobic quality, a kind of belief in the holiness of the Russian nation and the Russian soil and the Messianic vocation of the Russian people and all of that, which has some strengths, but which also could lead, if not thought through carefully, in some negative directions. So I suppose my answer is that once the lid of this official atheism is raised, as it really has been raised in many ways, there's a vast openness, and a lot of different kinds of critters can come out from under their rocks and scurry into this new opening.
What about the critters that come across the border? Is pluralism ahead for the Soviet Union?
Yes. There is a very vigorous growth now in those religious movements which have arrived from abroad in the last 100 or 200 years. For example, Baptists are growing very, very rapidly in the Soviet Union. The orthodox church, which has been rather the established church throughout all of the 1,000 years of its history, now finds itself in a new and rather competitive, or one might say open-market situation, a little bit like that of the United States, although not nearly as many contenders in the market. And many of these are religious ideas and movements which come from elsewhere.
Is religion appealing to young Russians these days?
Yes, very much so. In fact, one can see now in visiting orthodox churches, other churches, that instead of the congregation of the old which used to be described, you can look around and see a lot of young people and a lot of young men attending services. This is also true in the other churches as well.
Why do they go?
They're looking for something. I think many of them don't quite know for sure what it is they're looking for. But with the total collapse of Marxist-Leninism as a philosophy of life, they need something else to give coherence or inner meaning to their life, to help them make ethical choices and all the rest. And nobody denies now that the Marxist-Leninist philosophy is simply as dead as a dodo. It has a few leftover defenders, but nobody takes them very seriously. I would think that if you really asked Mikhail Gorbachev to answer it as seriously and as honestly as he could, he'd probably admit the same. ``New thinking'' means new thinking at all of these levels, including these very basic philosophical and spiritual levels of people's existence.
What's he trying to say when he says his mother is a believer and yet the government drags its feet officially on getting a freedom-of-conscience statute going? What are we, from this distance, to think about this?
I don't know what he's trying to say with that. He certainly wants to enlist as many different parts of the Russian population in his perestroika program as he can. He doesn't want to alienate anyone. The fact is, there is a very large number of religious believers in Russia. Even by the government's own statistics there are 50 or 60 million orthodox believers, and they're probably a lot more because they'd have no reason to exaggerate those numbers. So if you add the Roman Catholics who are clustered, many over in the Baltic area, and the Ukranians, and the Baptists, and others, that's a rather large group of his constituency. He doesn't want to alienate them, he wants them to work along for the kind of changes that he's looking for.
So I think he'll say anything he has to, and may even mean it, when he's trying to assure them that they're part of the picture as well. He says ``my mother is a believer - we're all in this together.''